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Obscure Halacha

Shofar Blasts on Rosh Hashanah

During the High Holiday season, we savor all of the time we spend with our friends and families. In addition to these familiar and pleasant voices, we hear a much more jolting and possibly disturbing voice: that of the Shofar. The last thing many want after the long paragraphs and songs during prayer on Rosh Hashanah is a loud horn to shake them up just as they drift in and out of conversation with God (or maybe drift off to sleep). Many can have a tough time enduring the long prayer alone, so why would we add one hundred shofar blasts (in most communities) and spend a seemingly never-ending amount of time in synagogue instead of at home? In order to better understand this issue, let’s take a closer look at the reason provided in the Shulchan Arukh.

Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 590:2

תרועה זו האמורה בתורה נסתפק לנו אם היא היללה שאנו קורים תרועה או אם היא מה שאנו קורים שברים או אם הם שניהם יחד לפיכך כדי לצאת ידי ספק צריך לתקוע תשר”ת ג”פ ותש”ת ג”פ ותר”ת ג”פ: 

This Teruah that is said in the Torah, it is doubtful to us if it is the wail that we call Teruah or if it is what we call Shevarim or if they are both of them together. Therefore, in order to remove any doubt, one needs to blow Tekiah-Shevarim-Teruah-Tekiah three times, Tekiah-Shevarim-Tekiah three times and Tekiah-Teruah-Tekiah three times.

This source explains how we derive the first 30 blasts. According to the first source, we are required to listen to each sound an additional two times to alleviate any doubt over whether they are the correct sounds. This adds up to ten different sounds that we need to make, and, as the source mentions, we blow each of these three times, making a total of 30 blasts. Although 30 blasts may seem like a lot, it is only a fraction of the one hundred blasts. So where do we get the other 70 blasts from? Let’s take a look at the next source. 

Rosh Hashanah: 34b

מַאי טַעְמָא? אָמַר רַבָּה: אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אִמְרוּ לְפָנַי בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה מַלְכִיּוֹת זִכְרוֹנוֹת וְשׁוֹפָרוֹת, מַלְכִיּוֹת — כְּדֵי שֶׁתַּמְלִיכוּנִי עֲלֵיכֶם, זִכְרוֹנוֹת — כְּדֵי שֶׁיָּבֹא לְפָנַי זִכְרוֹנֵיכֶם לְטוֹבָה, וּבַמֶּה — בְּשׁוֹפָר. 

The Gemara asks: What is the reason that all the blasts and blessings are indispensable on Rosh HaShana? Rabba said that the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Recite before Me on Rosh HaShana Kingship, Remembrances, and Shofarot. Kingship, so that you will crown Me as King over you; Remembrances, so that your remembrance will rise before Me for good. And with what? With the shofar. Since these blessings constitute a single unit, one who did not recite them all has not fulfilled his obligation.

This next source indicates that Rosh Hashanah requires all of the blasts and blessings because of God’s commandment to recite to Him Kingship, Remembrances, and Shofar Blasts, which are all sections of blessings said during Musaf on Rosh Hashanah. For this reason, an additional thirty blasts are blown in each of these three sections during both the silent Amidah (in some communities) and the Chazan’s repetition of the Amidah during Musaf. After adding these 60 blasts with the 30 blasts mentioned previously, we can understand where the requirement for 90 of the 100 total blasts comes from. However, that still leaves the final ten blasts unaccounted for, so where can we find the source for these ones?

In fact, the final ten blasts are more of a custom than a law, and are derived from a story described in the Navi. In the days of the judge Devorah, a woman named Yael assassinated the Jews’ enemy’s general, Sisera. Fearing the worst had befallen her son in battle, Sisera’s mother lamented her son in a symbolic 101 letters. If this lamentation dictates our total number of shofar blasts, why do we blow 100 blasts and not 101?

“We blow the shofar 100 times to nullify 100 of Sisera’s mother’s outcries of hatred and hostility and to arouse Hashem’s compassion for the descendants of Yitzchak.”

This is due to the fact that Sisera’s mother displayed two facets of grief: on the one hand, towards her son’s killers, she felt nothing but hatred and hostility. However, on the other hand, she also felt immense pain and suffering over the loss of her son. On a different note, during Akeidat Yitzchak, God showed mercy by commanding Avraham to sacrifice a ram instead of Yitzchak, his beloved son. In stark contrast to Sisera’s mother’s hostility and hatred towards Jews, God in Akeidat Yitzchak shows mercy to Yitzchak, the ancestor of the Jews. Similar to God’s response during Akeidat Yitzchak, Rosh Hashanah is meant to be a day during which God shows us mercy and compassion by forgiving us for the mistakes that we made in the past year and viewing us as the descendants of the Yitzchak of Akeidat Yitzchak and not those who killed this woman’s son. To symbolize this idea, we blow the shofar 100 times to nullify 100 of her outcries of hatred and hostility and to arouse Hashem’s compassion for the descendants of Yitzchak. However, we refrain from nullifying the very last of Sisera’s mother’s cries in order to recognize the sincere despair of a mother whose son, unlike Yitzchak, did not survive. After all, every mother, including those of the wicked, deserve compassion for the loss of a child.

Other communities include one additional shofar blast for a total of 101 blasts for various reasons. For example, some communities blow it 101 times, which corresponds to the number that correlates to the name of the angel, Michael, that seeks mercy on Jews’ behalf, while other communities blow the shofar an extra unnecessary amount of times to confuse the angel, Satan, who attempts to manipulate the Jewish people into sinning. Regardless, each of the reasons seem to symbolize or relate to the theme of Rosh Hashanah, leaving behind old traditions and starting anew, in some way. Although we may still feel uneasy about the long minutes spent listening to the Shofar, it’s important to recognize the ancient customs and reasons behind traditions that we still keep today.

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